After nearly 300 days of being detained in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner is on her way back to the United States. According to reports, Russia agreed to a prisoner exchange with the United States for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. A basketball player who had vape cartridges was essentially traded for a warmonger nicknamed “Merchant of Death.”
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
How Bad Is Russian Arms Dealer Viktor Bout?
First and foremost Brittney’s wife Cherelle and their families are no doubt relieved that this ordeal is over. Brittney was sentenced to nine years and was recently relocated to a penal colony roughly 200 miles away from Moscow.
The only way Vladimir Putin and the Russian government were going to commute Griner’s sentence was with a prisoner exchange. It was always going to be this specific prisoner in Bout. This was always the play. President Joe Biden and the U.S. government were caught between a rock and a hard place.
They couldn’t allow Russia to flaunt its power by holding a relatively famous U.S. citizen and everything Griner represents captive. But that meant freeing a very dangerous war criminal.
Bout is a former Soviet military translator, who used multiple companies he controlled to smuggle weapons from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East during the 1990s and early 2000s. He reportedly broke all sorts of embargoes in the name of weapons sales and war profiteering.
As reported by The Economist in 2008, “[Bout] struck deals with a remarkable axis of ne’er-do-wells: supplying weapons and air-transport to the Taliban, abetting despots and revolutionaries in Africa and South America, aiding Hizbullah in Lebanon and Islamists in Somalia. He also found time to supply American forces in Iraq, perhaps al-Qaeda too, and maybe even Chechen rebels.”
Viktor Bout, “The Merchant Of Death”
The “Merchant of Death” moniker makes perfect sense when you understand the conflicts in those regions. Bout is also called the “Sanction Buster.”
Bout simultaneously supplied both the rebels and the government during the latter stages of Angola’s civil war. He basically kept conflict going by providing both sides with weapons. The audacity and impunity he moved with was astonishing.
In 2008, a United States Drug Enforcement Agency-paid informer claiming to represent the Colombian rebel group FARC negotiated with Bout for the supply of surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rocket launchers to be parachuted in by Bout to agreed landing spots in Colombia. Bout was eventually arrested as a part of this sting.
After finally being extradited to the U.S. in 2010, he stood trial.
What Happened During Viktor Bout’s Trial
On Nov. 2, 2011, Bout was convicted by a jury in a Manhattan federal court of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization, and was sentenced to 25 years. That was the minimum amount he could be imprisoned because the crime was due to a sting operation.
Since his U.S. extradition in 2010, the Russian government has been aggressively trying to release their citizen. The Russian government protested the extradition, claiming it was illegal.
Bout, now 55, is directly responsible for countless deaths. Griner had vape cartridges with less than a gram of hashish oil. A tale of the tape says this in no way is a fair exchange. But this is a game of high-stakes geopolitical chess. There is no such thing as fair, equitable or right.